15. A play: M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang
List Progress: 23/30
I first heard of M. Butterfly back in college and was intrigued by the scandalous, absurd premise. In David Henry Hwang’s 1988 play, inspired by real events, a French diplomat is in prison in the early 1980s after it is revealed that his Chinese lover of twenty years has been a spy using him to get Western military secrets. But his lover has not only been hiding her true intentions, but her true sex: Song Liling is a man who performs in the Chinese opera in female roles and spends twenty years of a romantic and sexual relationship convincing René Gallimard that he is a heterosexual, cisgender woman, even to the point of faking a pregnancy. In this fourth-wall breaking piece, Gallimard directly talks to the audience about how the absurdity of the story is what has made it spread so far. Is he stupid? Is he delusional? Is he a gay man covering his identity with a ridiculous story? Or is he a blinded Westerner seeing what he wants to see and projecting submissiveness and femininity on anything that isn’t like him?
Hwang threads the story through with allusions and references to Puccini’s opera Madam Butterfly, one of the biggest Western touchstones of white men fetishizing and abusing Asian women. Song Liling is able to use that cultural fantasy to build “the Perfect Oriental Woman” to entrance Gallimard, who claims to not want to be a modern day Pinkerton, but secretly relishes the chance. (Thankfully the audience does not need a deep familiarity with Madam Butterfly to understand M. Butterfly, it is incorporated and explained fully.)
There are enough themes of race, colonialism, fetishization and sexuality in this play that I cannot begin to scratch the surface of as a white American woman. But as a playwright, I have to admire Hwang’s use of stagecraft and intercutting scenes to encapsulate many realities at once: Gallimard in prison looking back at the past, Gallimard and Song meeting and falling in love in China and Paris, and Gallimard trying to make peace with Song’s betrayal in his own mind. It is a complicated play that never feels like it is trying to trick or twist you, but to capture an impressionistic palate of moods and issues.
This play was powerful to read, but I imagine it would be mind blowing in person, having the music and stagecraft incorporated and alive. (The initial Broadway cast of John Lithgow and BD Wong sounds fascinating.) This is a frequently uncomfortable play, but in a way that feels useful. It is trying to make you uncomfortable to say something, to deconstruct some of your thinking, not just to get your hackles up. And that can be very important sometimes.
Would I Recommend It: Yes